Movies teach us how to watch them. Sometimes using no words at all.
At a preview screening of “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski’s suspense-horror film about a family forced to live in complete silence in Upstate New York lest they be eaten alive by alien creatures with supernaturally acute hearing, two women next to me chatted happily long after the lights had gone down and the various production company credits rolled, continuing their whispered conversation until the film was underway. Our neighbors opened candy wrappers and chomped popcorn, slurping on their sodas with abandon.
Within a couple of minutes, though, all noise in the theater had ceased. As Krasinski, co-star Emily Blunt and the young actors who play their children tiptoed through an abandoned store, communicating via sign language, the silence was deafening — and instructive. You’re now part of our world, the film announced. Behave accordingly. And we did.
“A Quiet Place” has become an impressive hit at the box office, proving yet again that, among cinematic genres, horror remains one best appreciated in a theater, in the company of others. But it’s tempting to think that its premise — the absence of traditional dialogue and loud, multilayered sound effects — has something to do with its success. At a time when mainstream films seem engaged in an escalating arms race of bombast, blaring music and manipulative soundtracks, the spare aural universe of “A Quiet Place” feels like both a welcome and unsettling respite.
The engulfing hush of “A Quiet Place” is its chief premise, a novel, even bold stroke that elevates an otherwise familiar creature feature. But other films are using silence to their advantage as well. In Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” Joaquin Phoenix plays a hit man haunted by past traumas, moving through an urban New York landscape while barely uttering a word, his grief coming into focus through his brooding, bearlike comportment and anguished facial expressions.
“The Rider,” Chloé Zhao’s poetic portrait of real-life rodeo horseman Brady Jandreau, is similarly evocative, its first several minutes engaged in simply observing Jandreau as he awakens, performs his morning ablutions and wordlessly contemplates a new reality brought on by a near-fatal head injury. For the rest of the movie, what Jandreau has to say takes on even more weight for the fact that he speaks so rarely: His words, as well as those of his father, sister and friends, are treated as part of a sonic landscape defined by gusts of wind, rustling grass and the occasional horse’s nicker.
Character is given a similar canvas to reveal itself in “Borg vs. McEnroe,” Janus Metz’s drama about the historic 1980 Wimbledon championship between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Although the film centers on that now-legendary showdown, its true subject is the famously restrained Borg: Played by Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason, to whom he bears an uncanny physical resemblance, the “Ice Borg,” as he was known, comes into focus within the first several minutes of the film, during which we watch him practice, stare into the Mediterranean distance and navigate the pressures of fame and the upcoming match.
There’s a bit of dialogue in the opening sequence of “Borg vs. McEnroe,” but for the most part it unfolds in silence, an appropriate choice given Borg’s superhuman self-control and studied diffidence. Within just a few minutes, viewers learn all we need to know about the movie we are about to see: It will be less a conventional sports story than a psychological study; the point of view will be Borg’s; and, as our chief protagonist, he is conflicted, thwarted, anxious and facing a professional and maybe even existential precipice. Thanks to Gudnason’s sensitive performance and expressive face — especially his sad, searching eyes — we not only glean that the stakes are high in “Borg vs. McEnroe,” we actually invest in them.
In various ways, each of these movies hark back to one of the greatest sound designs in recent memory: the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” in which an ensemble of American archetypes — cops, robbers, the innocent and the wicked — moved through a mostly silent West Texas expanse (punctuated by Anton Chigurh’s weapon of choice, a captive bolt pistol that issues a dreadful muffled “thunk” when deployed). The film’s cardinal scene, when Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss listens warily to the sound of someone walking and unscrewing a lightbulb outside his hotel door, offers a master class in using quiet to ratchet up suspense and unease. No noise is wasted, rather each possesses a specific meaning and threat.
None of these movies is completely silent, of course. “A Quiet Place” eventually resorts to conventional music cues to earn its jump scares, its only truly noise-free moments found when the perspective shifts to the family’s deaf daughter, played by Millicent Simmonds. Like “No Country for Old Men,” Krasinski’s film is a tutorial, not just in ingenious filmmaking but in paying attention to the soft, subtle layers of information that comprise what we commonly call silence.
To varying degrees and ends, all of these movies overcome the modern temptation to reduce cinema to pictures of people talking: Here, sound and image are deconstructed as component parts, both to convey the internal rules and atmosphere of each film, and to allow actors to communicate the old-fashioned way, through comportment, facial expression and behavior. As exercises in both technical prowess and aesthetic purity, “A Quiet Place” and its contemporaries augur an encouraging return to fundamentals. And, as audiences brace for yet another cacophonous summer, they provide a moment to savor the sounds of silence, and the multitudes they can contain.